Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Short History of Public Poetry Readings in Wilmington & Newark

Somehow I've managed to become the one who keeps the record of Delaware's literary history. There are two reasons for this, one is a rather oversized propensity for curiosity, and the other is to get some idea of the scope and composition of Delaware's literary community from the time we became "The First State" up to today. Not everyone appreciates my effort and my best indication of that is when those who attempt to refer to our literary history get it wrong. Some of it may be some fault of my own because I've not emphasized it in the right places, or failed to repeat certain features of it over and over again. Certainly, the failure by others to pay attention or to remember correctly shares that blame. Recently there was some confusion regarding the history of live poetry readings, especially in and around Wilmington and Newark.

The history of public poetry readings is a relatively short one. Before the early 1980s public poetry readings were rare and sometimes exclusive events. They may have been limited to well known poets giving a reading in an academic setting, or during a commemorative event connected to something of historic significance.

Today's public poetry readings largely grew out of the counter cultural movement of the late 1960s. Nearly every local counter cultural periodical since The Heterodoxical Voice published occasional poetry. It demonstrated to us that poetry could be appreciated by a general readership. During this period, local poets began to gather, in salon fashion, to privately read their poems to one another. This led to the next step toward staging public readings.

Yours truly reading at that 1982 reading in the Collins Room.
Phillip Bannowsky waits to read next.
There may be those who wish to differ, but I usually associate the advent of the current public poetry readings with one held sometime in the autumn of 1982 at the University of Delaware, in the Collins Room at the Perkins Student Center. The actual date is obscured because no one could have predicted the reading would launch a movement. The event was organized by former University of Delaware English Professor Gloria Hull with the intent to include academic poets as well as those from the community. On August 13, 1983, a poetry reading was held in the backyard of then Delaware Poet Laureate e. jean lanyon's home at the corner of Cleveland Avenue and North College Avenue in Newark, which was also open to the public. This reading was a kind of test run for the first fully public reading promoted by the literary group that called itself the Eschaton Writers, along with many of the same people who had been involved in the Dreamstreets project. That first real public reading was held at the Wilmington Public Library on August 31, 1983. Reading at that first event were Robert Bohm, Patricia E. Eagan, Douglas Morea, e. jean lanyon, Mafundi, and myself. On September 30, 1983, the same poets read at the Newark Public Library with the addition of poets Lew Bennett, Bob Chartowich, Jameelah and Suzanne Michelle. On October 15, 1983, two literary groups, The First State Writers and the Eschaton Writers, came together and held a joint poetry reading at O'Friel's Irish Pub in Wilmington. Reading at that event were Samuel Borton, Elizabeth Cory, Douglas Morea, Mafundi, Robert Bohm, Jameelah, Suzanne Michelle, Patricia E. Eagan, e. jean lanyon, and myself. This was a significant reading because Kevin Freel, the owner of O'Friel's invited us back for the next second Saturday, on November 12, 1983, thus launching the regular 2nd Saturday Readings, which prevail to this day.

Additional readings continued to be held. On November 3, 1983, the Eschaton Writers held a reading at the Concord Pike Public Library, north of Wilmington, with many of the same poets cited above. There was a short series of regular poetry readings at The Hen's Teeth Bookstore on East 7th Street in Wilmington and in October a poetry reading, held in observance of the 100th anniversary of the death of Karl Marx, was held at the Walnut Street YMCA. On December 3, 1983, a reading commemorating the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe was held at the Deer Park Tavern in Newark, thus rounding out that year of successfully launching the poetry reading movement in the area.

In October 1990, Dreamstreets launched regular readings in Newark on the 3rd Saturday and later on the 3rd Sunday. The record for these readings, which lasted until May 1994, can be found on the website It was around the time these Dreamstreets readings ended that the "poetry slam" movement began. Before the end of the millennium, new readings emerged at the Newark Arts Alliance's Art House in Newark and at Saints Andrew and Matthew Church in Wilmington. 

There may be public poetry readings that are not known by me currently happening regularly in the area. I do know that the 2nd Saturday Readings still occur just outside the city limits in Wilmington at the Jackson Inn on Lancaster Pike. In Newark, the Mocha, Music & More event, currently held at Central Perk on Main Street, features regular poetry readings. 

The history of public poetry readings in northern New Castle County is now 30 years old, a record that should be relished by local literary artists.

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